In ski towns like Lake Tahoe, Silicon Valley's elite are causing booms in school enrollment

In ski towns like Lake Tahoe, Silicon Valley's elite are causing booms in school enrollment
Students are taught a lesson in an outdoor classroom at Lake Tahoe School in Incline Village, Nevada.Lake Tahoe School
  • Families from Silicon Valley and other wealthy locales are moving to mountain resort towns in droves.
  • In Tahoe, the average home price last month was $749,000, up nearly 25% since the same month last year, according to Redfin.
  • At some schools, the newcomers have created a boom in enrollment.
  • At a one-room-schoolhouse in Bear Valley, California, enrollment has multiplied.

In Bear Valley California, a small ski town south of Lake Tahoe, Justin Savaso powers up the SMART Board in his one-room schoolhouse and gets ready to teach a lesson on Zoom. In the empty classroom, a small black pellet stove with a chimney awaits wintertime, when a deep layer of white snow will envelop the school and the surrounding mountains.

Many would consider being a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse to be a tough job, but Savaso, a warm 27-year-old who lives in a cabin nearby, takes it in stride. Last year, his student population was in the single digits: he started the year with seven students and ended the year with four: two kindergarteners, a first-grader, and a second-grader. He would move from one to another, teaching lessons and assigning independent work.

Normally, a travelling teacher would come in to give students a music lesson once a week, and an assistant teacher would pop in to do art lessons. When the local ski mountain opened, students spent PE taking ski and snowboard lessons on the slopes.

But this year, things are different, and not just because COVID-19 has forced his school to go online.

Savaso's student population has more than quadrupled since the end of last year, from four students across three grade levels to 18 students across seven grade levels. Only two of those 18 were returning students to Bear Valley School.


It's just one snapshot of a larger trend playing out across multiple western mountain resort towns, as families with means are pouring into locales like Lake Tahoe, California and Aspen, Colorado. Families who usually drive up from Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Francisco to spend a weekend carving up powder around Lake Tahoe are snapping up properties and moving into their vacation homes full-time, looking to escape high rates of COVID-19.

In Tahoe, the average home price last month was $749,000, up nearly 25% since the same month last year, according to Redfin. In Pitkin County, Colorado, where Aspen is located, the median sales price for a single-family home in 2020 was over $3 million, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors, up more than 14% over 2019.

As a result, many local schools, especially those offering in-person classes, have seen increased demand from new families — and as schools scale up to meet the demand, there's little certainty in how long the new students will stick around. The Colorado Sun called the phenomenon an "urban exodus," pointing to institutions like the Vail Mountain School, whose wait list is its longest ever, and Aspen school district, where enrollment has soared.

In Bear Valley, the rising numbers have proved a challenge.

"It feels like we are all back to our first year of teaching," Savaso, who has taught for five, told Business Insider. With so many students, lesson planning usually takes place the night before, and instructional time is limited to one hour and 15 minutes per age level, Savaso said. Kids spend the rest of the school day doing independent work.


Meanwhile, at private schools like Lake Tahoe School, a pre-K through grade 8 private school located just 25 minutes from Northstar ski resort, the influx has been a boon.

In ski towns like Lake Tahoe, Silicon Valley's elite are causing booms in school enrollment
Lake Tahoe School's enrollment has hit 185 students this year.Lake Tahoe School

"For private schools, more students equals more tuition dollars," said Robert Graves, the head of Lake Tahoe School, in an interview with Business Insider. "I'm grateful for the numbers."

A year of middle school tuition at the institution clocks in at $26,000, and the school hit maximum enrollment at 185 students this year. Sister schools in Truckee and Reno, towns which also border Lake Tahoe, are also experiencing 10% to 20% bumps in enrollment, Graves said.

Not only are fuller classrooms more cost effective, but the bonus funding is even more essential given the costs of adapting to COVID-19. Graves estimated the school budgeted $100,000 to $200,000 for costs like outdoor classrooms, sneeze guards, cleaning supplies, and temperature checks.

Still, Graves knows the influx might be temporary.


"The overall enrollment increase is great, but if things clear up tomorrow, will they be staying?" said Graves.

To be sure, not all mountain towns have seen enrollment numbers balloon. In August, Teton County School District, which serves the children of famed resort town Jackson Hole, braced for a 100-student increase, said Charlotte Reynolds, who handles communications for the school district. Administrators worried about implementing social distancing requirements at their middle school, which was already "bursting at the seams," according to Reynolds. An influx of new students would compound the issue.

But instead, a different trend emerged: many local parents decided to homeschool their children, and many newcomers decided to enroll their students for Teton County's hybrid learning. The net number of students decreased by 95, but the proportion of newcomers to locals has shifted, Reynolds said.

As for Savaso, his role as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse is finally getting a little easier.

After more than a month of teaching solo, Bear Valley School hired another instructor so that Savaso could focus on third grade through fifth grade, rather than transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. He said he's excited about the prospect of being able to plan more units. So far, they've learned about Native Americans, climate change, and wildfires.


Still, his school may not have stopped growing. His school has a projected goal of reopening October 12, and he's already been contacted by a few families looking to enroll their students once classes return face-to-face.

If need be, "I'm sure we could get some more desks," he said.